The Decade That Was: Indian sportswomen that came to the fore

Olympic Channel’s ode to India’s incredible sportswomen that have made the nation proud over the past ten years.

By Jay Lokegaonkar ·

Before 2010, only one woman had stepped on an Olympic podium for India.

Karnam Malleswari's trailblazing success was the starting point.

Since the turn of the decade, an array of the finest Indian sports women have made their country proud with incredible performances - and another four have managed to break new ground by winning Olympic medals for their country.

We take a look at the Indian sports women that broke barriers, won accolades and inspired change for the better over the past decade.

Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu’s shuttle to greatness

At the forefront of the country’s sporting revolution have been Indian badminton greats Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. Nehwal set the ball rolling in the first half of the decade, winning a Commonwealth Games gold medal in Delhi in 2010, before becoming the first Indian female athlete to win an Olympic medal at London 2012 Summer Olympics. Saina Nehwal went on to become the World No.1 in the BWF Women’s Rankings in 2015, becoming the first female Indian badminton player to achieve the feat.

PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal have been the torchbearers of Indian badminton throughout the decade

While the first half of the decade belonged to Saina Nehwal, the latter saw PV Sindhu rise to the top of the women’s game, achieving a number of firsts, much like her compatriot.

An Arjuna award winner at just 18, Sindhu became the first Indian badminton player to win a medal at two successive BWF World Championships, doing so in 2013 and 2014, winning bronze on both occasions. The Indian badminton player reached the final at the Rio Olympics 2016 but had to settle for silver after being beaten in the final by Carolina Marin. Sindhu won silver at 2017 as well as the 2018 BWF World Championships, before finally breaking her duck in 2019, thrashing Nozomi Okuhara 21-7, 21-7 in the final to become the first Indian badminton player to win the World Championship crown.

Saina Mirza’s majestic decade

After injuries curtailed her promising singles career at the start of the decade, many believed that Indian tennis sensation Sania Mirza will slowly fade away into oblivion. She, however, had other ideas.

Mirza transitioned into a doubles player and ascended to the top of the world in the doubles game, winning six Grand Slam titles.

It all started with her maiden French Open final appearance in the women’s doubles category in 2011, where she came up short but redeemed herself by winning in Paris in 2012 in the mixed doubles category, alongside fellow Indian tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi. After dominating on the tour circuit, Sania Mirza won her second mixed doubles Grand Slam title at the US Open in 2014.

2015 was Mirza’s - and perhaps any Indian tennis player’s - best year. She paired with Martina Hingis and the duo won three successive titles, which propelled Mirza to No.1 in the women’s doubles ranking, making her the first Indian player to achieve that feat. She, alongside Hingis, won three successive Grand Slam titles and embarked on a record-breaking run of 41-straight wins.

Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis split a couple of months after their 2016 Australian Open triumph. However, Mirza continued to add titles to her CV till 2017, before injuries and pregnancy brought a brief halt to her career. Mirza will be making her much-anticipated return in 2020 at the Hobart International.

Mary Kom - Ageing like fine wine

Since making her debut at the turn of the century, female Indian boxer MC Mary Kom has won 18 international titles for India, numerous national awards and has had a blockbuster Bollywood biography, but the 36-year-old Indian boxer has shown no intention of hanging it up anytime soon.

Throughout her career, Kom has been a trailblazer. Since her silver medal win at the AIBA Women’s World Championships in 2001, Kom has won gold a record six times, with her latest coming in 2018.

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On her debut in London 2012, Mary Kom won bronze, making her just the second Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal after Vijender Singh’s third-place finish at Summer Olympics 2008 Beijing. Mary Kom, a recipient of the Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian honour, and a Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, has paved the way for women’s boxing in India and the 36-year-old is still on the quest for another Olympic medal and training hard to compete at Tokyo 2020.

Vinesh Phogat - Thriving in the family business

Hailing from a family of world-class wrestlers, that includes Commonwealth Games gold medalists Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari, Vinesh Phogat followed her sisters into the family business and one-upped them by winning a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games as well as in the 2018 edition.

A serial winner at the international stage, Vinesh Phogat has been one of the most successful Indian wrestlers in history and at just 25, one can assume the best is yet to come from the Haryana-native. Vinesh has been in stellar form recently, winning the Asian Games gold medal in 2018 and a bronze at the World Championships in Nur-Sultan earlier this year. Phogat has turned her focus on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Gunning for gold- Manu Bhaker

Since Abhinav Bindra’s gold at Beijing 2008, shooting has seen a massive upward trajectory in India, and 11 years since his triumph, the nation now boasts of a wide pool of shooting talent that can bring home more medals from the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

At the forefront of the Indian shooting charge at Tokyo 2020 will be teenage sensation Manu Bhaker. At the ISSF World Cup in Guadalajara in 2018, Bhaker became the youngest Indian shooter in history to win an ISSF World Cup gold at just 16 and has been nothing short of sensational ever since.

At just 17, Manu Bhaker is a six-time ISSF World Cup gold medalist

In the past 20 months, Bhaker has added six ISSF World Cup, two Asian Shooting Championship and one Commonwealth Gold to her trophy cabinet. While her career is still in its infancy, Bhaker has already taken giant strides in the shooting world and is quickly becoming the face of the sport in the nation. 

Deepika Kumari’s decade of dominance

Her two bronze medal wins at the recently concluded Asian Archery Championships meant that Deepika Kumari has won an international title in all but one year (2017) of the past decade. Despite being just 25, Kumari has been competing at the international stage for 10 years. As a 15-year-old, Kumari made the nation take notice of her talent by winning bronze at the Asian Games before capturing two gold medals at the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi.

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Deepika Kumari proved her wins were no fluke by winning four silver medals at the Archery World Cup and another silver at the Asian Archery Championship in 2011. However, second place wasn’t good enough for Kumari and so, she went to the Archery World Cup in Antalya in 2012 as a 17-year-old and captured her first gold medal. In her decade-long career, a whopping, 23 Archery World Cup medals, including five golds and six Asian Archery gold medals which includes a mixed team gold in 2013.   

Despite all her success, Kumari is still yearning for that one accolade missing from her trophy cabinet — an Olympic medal. And having secured a berth for India at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the archery legend will be aiming to fill the void in Japan next year.

Dipa Karmakar’s courageous triumph

Only a handful of vault gymnasts have had the valour to attempt the ‘Produnova’. However, India’s Dipa Karmakar is not only among those bravehearts but has also dedicated her life to perfecting the ‘Vault of Death’.

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Her efforts bore fruit. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Dipa Karmakar stunned all those in attendance by attempting and landing the Produnova and becoming only the fifth woman in history to successfully execute the move. Her courage helped her finish third and become the first female Indian gymnast to win a Commonwealth Games medal.

At Rio 2016, Karmakar became the first gymnast to represent India at the Summer Olympics and the then 23-year-old proved that she wasn’t in Brazil just to make up the numbers. She attempted the Produnova on the grandest stage of them all and managed to execute it yet again. She narrowly missed out on a medal, finishing fourth, but Dipa Karmakar’s bravery earned her praise from everyone in the gymnastics community.

A bright future 

The efforts of these women have not only brought unprecedented glory to the nation but have also inspired and paved the way for future generations to follow in their footsteps and emulate them, if not surpass their achievements. 

And with the majority of these women, if not all, set to compete at the Tokyo Olympics 2020, we may yet see them add another glorious chapter to their illustrious careers.